by Dan Wilson
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris has been re-released as part of the Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films. You may be familiar with Solaris from Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel or Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film starring George Clooney, but if that’s your only exposure to this story, Tarkovsky’s interpretation is well worth viewing. Kris Kelvin is a psychiatrist sent to Solaris space station to investigate the strange phenomenon inflicting the remaining crewmembers. A sentient ocean covers the planet Solaris, and this ocean manifests ‘visitors’ to the station. These visitors seem to be apparitions from the darkest recesses of each crewmember’s subconscious. Lem’s intended theme was an exploration of how mankind would interact and communicate with sentient beings who were so unlike us as to be unrecognizable. Tarkovsky chose to depart from this theme by exploring issues of humanity and conscience, as well as nostalgia for Earth and the homeland. Throughout this character-driven, passionate drama, the characters struggle with questions of conscience, redemption, humanity, and sanity as they wrestle with their individual manifestations. The film is interspersed with black-and-white sequences, which Tarkovsky used as a visual cue for night and dream-states. Like many Russian films, Solaris has a pacing that’s different from what western audiences are used to. Tarkovsky eschewed the Russian montage popularized by Eisenstein, preferring to let the performance unfold in real time. To this end, he uses many long shots, and when an edit is required, he frequently uses Hollywood-style match cuts to smooth out the transition, if not hide it altogether, and create the illusion of seamless time. Tarkovsky was also fond of leaving visual clues in the frame that would be explained later in the film. Rather than spelling out the significance of the objects and event in the frame, he dangles a piece of the story in front of the viewer; an invitation to solve the puzzle concurrently with the main characters. This is the type of film that is so densely packed with images and symbolism that one can watch it over and over again, reading something different each time. Special features on the DVD include a richly detailed commentary and analysis by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie. They provide the viewer with historical and social perspectives about the film, as well as information about Tarkovsky’s personal life. These details help enhance the viewer’s understanding of Tarkovsky the artist, and ultimately, of his art. Be sure to block off plenty of time. Solaris itself runs two hours and forty-nine minutes not counting the special features. In addition to a bevy of deleted and alternate scenes, a second disc of supplemental material includes interviews with actors, principal crewmembers, and Stanislaw Lem. These interviews all give viewers valuable insight into what it was like to work with a man many consider to be one of the geniuses of Soviet cinema. Solaris is available through the Milwaukee Public Library and video stores around town. Dan Wilson is a partner in Bartoli Filmworks, a full-service film and video production company located in Milwaukee. He is a passionate advocate for independent film and produces a number of short and feature length works every year.